Saturday, June 8, 2019

Book Reviews: The Border

The Border
by Don Winslow
In The Border Winslow concludes the story that he started in The Power of the Dog and The Cartel and which he referenced in The Force and Savages. As with those previous stories there are a number of ultra realistic depictions of extreme depraved violence. 

So if you can't handle those pictures rattling around your head this isn't the book for you. I have seen interviews where the author has  addressed concerns (his own and those of others) that by telling what he sees as a true to life story he's also engaging in violence porn. That could be.

As with certain scenes in George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, Winslow has created some vivid violent sequences that occasionally caused me to put the book down and reflect on the world's evil. And I have a pretty high tolerance for that sort of stuff.

Nevertheless there is very little that Winslow has imagined in this book that hasn't occurred in real life. In fact he adapts a few real life incidents. There are devils and demons who walk this planet and live long, happy and remunerative, albeit utterly malevolent, lives. It is an open sociological and historical question as to why with a few notable exceptions  American organized crime groups did not routinely liquidate the families of any disobedient employees, clients or victims and avoided murdering police officers, judges, politicians and other high profile "civilians" who got on the local Mob boss's last nerves. 

Organized crime groups in Mexico and Guatemala have no such reservations. Does the difference have something to do with the violence of the pre-Colombian Mayan and Aztec societies? Is it caused by the even more extreme violence of the Spanish conquests? Is it caused by the repeated US interventions? I can't answer those questions.

Though some Latin American countries are more violent than the United States, they might be equal in terms of corruption. Latin American corruption might be more direct and in your face. American corruption could be more difficult to eliminate because much of it is legal. 

Art Keller, the trilogy's tortured anti-hero DEA agent, has come home from Mexico. Keller made a deal with Adan Barrera, the Sinaloa Cartel boss who tortured and murdered Keller's partner, and who attempted to murder Keller multiple times. There were more violent drug cartels coming up behind Barrera. So reluctantly Keller used Barrera and the ever resourceful and always horny Eddie Ruiz to eliminate the  leaders of those organizations and hopefully slow their growth. Unable to forgive his partner's murder and the other various Barrera ordered atrocities, Keller broke his word and murdered Barrera. Keller returns to the US and becomes the head of the DEA.  Because of his co-operation, Ruiz serves a short sentence stateside.

The Border has at least three overarching themes. (1) What's done in the dark will come to the light, (2) the violence and disorder in Mexico and Central America can't be understood without understanding US demand for drugs and US imperialist policy; the US is linked to other nations and no border wall will change that, (3) at the very top levels of any society, the elites only care about money and power.

Keller discovers that by eliminating Barrera he has made things worse. The reduced Sinaloa Cartel embarks upon a civil while simultaneously battling old rivals and new upstarts. A shadowy figure makes his own plans. And what is Ruiz up to?

Worst of all a brash New York real estate mogul/reality TV star named John Dennison (this combines the first and last names of fake names Donald Trump used when he leaked information to the press) appears likely to win the Republican nomination for President and perhaps the Presidency. Dennison's oleaginous son-in-law does business deals with banks backed by Mexican cartels.  The cartels switch from cocaine to heroin and flood US markets with fentanyl laced heroin.  

As with a Dickens story, Winslow creates many realistic characters that you will, if not quite identify with, certainly understand. A young boy named Nico flees Guatemalan gang violence to make a harrowing journey to the US, where he runs into the same issues.  A former college student uses heroin to remove the pain of her molestation by her stepfather. A young Mexican man groomed for cartel leadership discovers that he lacks the brutal and treacherous nature needed to succeed. Another cartel leader orders atrocities too disturbing to describe but is also a kind husband who runs errands for his wife. A NYPD cop goes undercover and finds that he dislikes his boss about as much as he hates the criminals with whom he works.

A psychopathic cartel security chief determines she has to go above and beyond in her murders and tortures just so people don't think that she's soft, being a woman. Unironically, she identifies as a feminist. Senators inform Keller that he can't touch certain people, no matter what crime they commit.  An old Black man serving three life sentences because he loaned a friend a phone waits with increasing desperation for a pardon that might never come. 

Keller wrestles with his sympathy for drug users and growing conviction that "war" is the wrong framework to combat the drug problem. Keller balances his righteous anger for drug barons and  their political and financial backers, and his anger at himself for his compromises and mistakes. Some of those compromises and mistakes leave Keller in a perilous condition once political power changes hands. His enemies play for keeps. But so does Keller.

This book was just under 700 pages. It is a page turner that you won't want to put down. Winslow is a hell of a storyteller.  The Border will make you think about how complicit we are in some everyday horrors. Although the product is narcotics the story of exploitation could be told about  US import. This is not just a grim tale. There is a fair amount of mordant humor, much of it centered around Ruiz and his complicated romantic life. This is the rare novel which works both as entertainment and education. 

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you."
- Friedrich Nietzsche

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